One Small Step in a Larger Journey

When it was time to be installed as pastor in my first congregation, a small new church development project in the Calumet region of Northwest Indiana, I was interviewed by two members of the local Presbytery. I was not aware of the internal struggle in the judicatory between evangelicals and moderate progressives, nor was I aware that the evangelicals had worked hard to be appointed to the committee responsible for interviewing, admitting and installing new ministers in order to insure a respectable evangelical voice throughout the Presbytery. The two men I met that day were, I learned later, the leaders of the evangelical party. One had recently returned from a distinguished ministry as a missionary in Egypt and thought that all the 1960s talk about race, poverty, gender and peace was a distraction from, if not a perversion of, the gospel. He did most of the talking and the first thing he asked me was whether or not I “preached for a decision.” I don’t remember what I answered but whatever it was my questioner was not impressed. Things began to go down hill until I was rescued by the other minister, an older, gentler evangelical saint. Now, decades later, I could answer that question with a confident yes, not in a way that would have satisfied my interrogator, to be sure, but an affirmation that all gospel proclamation deserves and require response, a decision that is.

Traditionally, in the evangelical world, that decision comes in response to a fervent evangelical sermon and altar call, a deeply powerful and personal experience of conversion. My friend, Craig Barnes’ recent reflection of his affectionate memory of his father’s evangelical revival meetings raises the underlying issue of how any of us comes to Christian faith. Similar to Craig’s experience, I was exposed to revivalism, including the tent variety, by my childhood next door neighbor playmates. We were steady, loyal Presbyterians but didn’t get overheated about it. They were, by contrast, red hot Baptists, went to church twice on Sunday and Wednesday evening, didn’t smoke, play cards or go to movies and helped sponsor and arrange revival meetings in their church or a large circus tent on a vacant lot when traveling evangelists passed through town. I frequently attended Baptist Young Peoples’ Union (BYPU) with them on Sunday evening before the prayer meeting. There were great songs – “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy deep in my heart. Where? Deep in my heart!”, Bible memorization contests that I excelled at, plentiful snacks afterward and cute girls. I also tagged along for the revivals in the circus tent. The evangelist illustrated his sermon with a large flannel board and colorful characters, and masterfully coordinated his appeal with the organist who began playing softly and compellingly as the sermon came to its climax. On one occasion, with my chum’s encouragement, I actually went forward at the passionate urging of the preacher to “get saved”. I recall expecting something powerful to happen when I knelt in front of the altar and the preacher placed his hands on my head and prayed. Nothing happened. So I returned the next night and went forward expectantly down the center aisle again. Again – nothing. I didn’t feel a thing except self consciousness and the profound hope that my baseball buddies would never know about it. I was supposed to be giving my heart to Jesus and I think I tried. But it just didn’t work. Nothing happened.
Later when I finally got around to telling my parents about it, my mother patiently explained that for some of us conversion is not a one-time emotionally laced event but a process, and that maybe what I did was simply one small step in a larger journey.
That’s what it is for many, maybe most, of us. Conversion is both decision and process, long process, and a “Decision for Christ”, furthermore, is made every day for the rest of our lives. We decide daily in the context of the lives we live in the world, lives of amazing complexity with economic, political, and relational challenges, with great joy and great sadness, with moments of deep disappointment but also moments of great beauty and ecstasy, we decide there, daily, to be Christ’s man, Christ’s woman and to stumble along behind him that day as best we can.
I don’t think I ever heard the gospel of love in those Baptist youth meetings, prayer meetings and revivals. It was probably there but what I remember hearing was that there was plenty wrong with me and that apart from “Deciding for Christ” I was in a whole lot of trouble. It took much longer for grace to penetrate and gain a foothold. But not for a moment do I regret or resent what happened in that tent revival in my youth when a preacher whose name I have long forgotten placed his hands on my head and asked Jesus to save me. It was, I conclude, one step in a journey that has been going on all of my life and has taken me places – theologically, aesthetically, personally where I never expected to be. In some way, at some time, we all have to get up out of our chair and decide to be, to take a first step in the journey.

Comments

  1. Ann Forshey Frontain says:

    And so it has been, is being with me on a daily basis

  2. small steps are coming a little more quickly nowdays

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